The Trouble With Spiked

June 13, 2010 at 2:31 pm (Miscellaneous) ()

I’m interested in the substance of what is written by Spiked, how they present their arguments, and how they engage with the public.

Personally, I’m not that impressed. Spiked do not have a comment facility (I’ll come back to this point later), sometimes make claims that really should be referenced but are not, and they fail to engage with readers.

Referencing Claims

This piece on animal testing (link) cited only one reference. That reference has now been removed. There are no longer any sources provided for the claims made in the article. [PDF]*

There are claims made about the testing of thalidomide that I was particularly interested in, but these claims were (sadly) not referenced: no sources for the claims were given. There are also unattributed comments quoted in the article and in one instance it is unclear to me whether these are direct quotes or a paraphrasing of a position.

I don’t want a Spiked writer to simply tell me that they know something – I want them to tell me how they know.

Back in September last year, I wrote to spiked-online and asked if they could back up one of these claims in particular. I didn’t even get a response.

There is a lack of transparency in Spiked articles such as the one I link to above. I cannot see where they get their information from, as they do not source claims. While there is nothing in the NUJ code of conduct that explicitly demands claims be sourced, there is a reference to obtaining material by “honest, straightforward and open means”.

It is unclear to me whether it is considered acceptable for journalists to make unsourced claims and provide unattributed quotes, but in my limited experience of blogging, it seems that such practices are considered to be unacceptable.

This news article reports on a survey of bloggers (abstract here: link).

Key issues in the blogosphere are telling the truth, accountability, minimizing harm and attribution, although the extent to which bloggers follow their own ethical ideals can depend on the context and intended audience. […]

Truth telling involves honesty, fairness and completeness in reporting. Accountability involves being answerable to the public, bearing the consequences of one’s actions and revealing conflicts of interest […] Attribution covers issues such as avoiding plagiarism, honouring intellectual property rights and giving sources proper credit. [Quotes are from the news article.]

Spiked fail on the count of accountability, having no comment facility and refraining from responding to correspondence from readers. They might also be considered to fall down on attribution, given their failure to source any of their material in some articles. Non-personal bloggers apparently valued both attribution and truth-telling most. Spiked could learn from these bloggers.

Failing to reference claims and ignoring requests for citations are the sort of things that makes me wary of trusting what someone writes – for me, some of those writing for Spiked are basically journalists writing opinion pieces and I would give their opinions as much weight as I would to those of any hack writing an unsourced opinion piece.

This next quote from the news article sums up nicely my issue with Spiked’s failure to source quotes and claims:

Credibility counts. The authors suggest that non-personal bloggers practise truth telling, attribution and minimizing harm with similar frequency because they want their content taken seriously. As in journalism, offering readers sources and providing links makes for more convincing blogging than just telling the ‘truth’ alone.

Comments

Spiked articles do not have a comment facility. I find the comments on this blog very valuable, as readers will often raise relevant points that had not occurred to me or (more importantly) spot an error in what I have written.

My blogposts don’t have to go through peer-review before they are published. Once posted, though, they are subject to criticism, as well as suggested clarifications and corrections from my readers.

If I get something wrong, you can tell me.* I’ll even edit a post to correct an error – and acknowledge the edit.

If I don’t accept that I’ve made an error, then other readers can at least see that there is a disagreement. Spiked’s articles do not allow for transparent discussion of disputed ‘facts’.

The news article on the ethics of blogging linked to earlier in this post has some comment on self-regulation of the blogosphere:

Less ethical bloggers can also expect payback: the blogosphere is more interactive than traditional media, allowing instant and often vigorous feedback to bloggers that violate readers’ standards. This ‘sanction’ on unethical behaviour may replace the need for a formal blogging ethics code.

As Spiked is actually less interactive than traditional media (most newspapers have a letters page and online comment facility), it is more difficult to provide feedback. That I can only email them privately or discuss their failings on my own blog is less than satisfactory. My failings can be discussed openly in the comments section below. Readers will never see the criticism of Spiked articles they peruse unless they happen across it elsewhere.

I do not find unsourced arguments from unaccountable authors credible. I tend to ignore Spiked, and can only hope that others do likewise.

More

*Spiked do have a ‘corrections policy’ and a link that is supposed to go to a form you can use to submit corrections. Unfortunately, that link throws up a 404 error. You could try emailing them to point this out, but (alas) the email link leads to the same 404 page. I’ve dug out the email address I had for them and have dropped them a quick email just to let them know. Hopefully, their ‘corrections’ link will soon be working again.

Edit 15:45

Others may be concerned that Spiked Online is “an online mouthpiece for the libertarian LM group” (link) or that Spiked have an agenda (link). I’m more concerned with the actual material on their website, their sourcing of claims, and their accountability.

Richard Wilson has an interesting piece here which has details of the corporate sponsors of Spiked, but also makes this point:

As seems pretty clear in the two articles picked apart by Naomi and Gimpy, the arguments on Spiked are often so tortured that it’s difficult to believe that the author genuinely holds to what they’re saying.

Which of course begs the question why… Contrarianism clearly seems to be a part of it. As I learned at my sisters’ expense when I was growing up, disagreeing with other people for the sake of it can be both fun and entertaining, especially when you can see that people are getting really annoyed by it – and Spiked clearly do have a talent for winding everyone up.

I think Spiked might fit the description of Peter Hitchens given by Enemies of Reason:

Peter Hitchens is a proll – a professional troll. His entire reason for existing is to try and say something sufficiently outrageous or unjustifiable that it gets him some attention.

Edit, 19:21 14th June

1. *Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that I have conflated two Spiked articles in the first paragraph on referencing claims. Sorry.

2. As Rob Lyons notes in the comments section, Spiked do accept some feedback and publish a limited selection relating to recent articles. (There is still, though, the issue of feedback regarding older posts on the site.)

3. Another commenter, Guyincognito76, has quite rightly noted that the mainstream media tend to be no better than Spiked in terms of sourcing quotes and claims. I agree with this point and will continue to highlight poor reporting from the mainstream media.

4. Rob Lyons appears to be under the impression that I am against animal testing and that this is my motivation for the post I have written on Spiked. Just to be absolutely clear – I am not against animal testing in drug development and do not believe that the co-option of the thalidomide case by animal rights activists to be justified. Here’s an old blogpost I wrote about thalidomide.

10 Comments

  1. Rob Lyons said,

    This is a strange bunch of criticisms. You complain about two articles written by two individuals who do not work for Spiked but wrote on matters of direct interest to them. One is four years old, the other is over nine years old and the latter clearly comes from an early version of our site. The majority of our articles are very well referenced.

    We do invite feedback. You will find a ‘respond to this article’ link at the top of every article. Feedback links on old, legacy articles may not work as we’ve moved servers a couple of times but the link should work on all articles from the past few years. A selection of letters is published regularly and plenty of them are critical. I am not a fan of comment pages as they too often become a focus for abuse (see Comment is Free for many examples) rather than coherent debate but we keep that policy under review. If you are against animal testing that’s your prerogative, but you should get your facts right before accusing us of getting ours wrong or seeking to exclude debate.

  2. Guyincognito76 said,

    I must admit to being unaware, and sadly do not have the time to properly check it out now, of this site and so can not comment either way.

    I will say that the mainstream press make no effort to quote sources instead simply stating, “a Sun source has told us…”

  3. softestpawn said,

    I love to see people demand audit/reference trails, acountability and open correction.

  4. jdc325 said,

    This is a strange bunch of criticisms. You complain about two articles written by two individuals who do not work for Spiked but wrote on matters of direct interest to them. One is four years old, the other is over nine years old and the latter clearly comes from an early version of our site. The majority of our articles are very well referenced.

    Fair point. Let’s take a more recent article as an example. Here, you provide no source or reference for the following claims:
    “The incentive schemes… still assume that the tedious business of separating our waste for recycling is the best way of dealing with rubbish. Which it isn’t.” Why isn’t it? On what evidence is this claim based? I am not arguing that recycling is the best way of dealing with rubbish – I would simply like to know how you came by the information that recycling is not the best way of dealing with rubbish.
    “The power to trial pay-as-you-throw schemes was legislated for in the UK Climate Change Act of 2009. Five local authorities were allowed the opportunity to test out the scheme. However, none of them actually tried it.” I presume that this has been reported elsewhere – but you choose not to reference your source for this information. Why?
    On landfill tax: “The current rate is £48 per tonne. On top of this, councils are also set targets for a maximum total amount of waste going to landfill. If they breach those levels, a fine of £150 per tonne is imposed.” This sounds plausible – but is it actually true? What is your source?
    “…many more councils in the UK now use incinerators” This seems to me to be a claim that could (and perhaps should) be supported by evidence. Why isn’t this evidence referenced in your article if it is available?
    “Landfill is so much cheaper than recycling that in order to get councils to change their waste disposal policies, absolutely swingeing charges must be put on to landfill.” How much cheaper is landfill? Is there a comparison of costs that you have referred to when writing your article? If there is, then why not source the claim?
    “By taking out much of the confusion and hassle associated with separating waste, householders are more likely to do it.” Common sense suggests that this would be the case – but is there evidence to support this claim or are you simply making the point that you personally believe that this is what would happen?
    “…the main reason why co-mingling irritates greens is because if you take away the complexity of recycling, the ritual […] then we don’t have that daily eco-message drummed into our heads: ‘We are greedy, wasteful people who throw too much stuff away.’”” This might well be true – but are you simply speculating on the mindset of greens or do you have some evidence that this is actually the case?
    “When pressed, the more sensible recycling advocates will admit that separating out our waste – like another fashionable idea, banning plastic shopping bags – has little impact on the environment. They will also admit that recycling schemes will always require a certain amount of subsidy.” Who are these recycling advocates? When and where did they make these admissions? Have you accurately represented their views? If you don’t give your sources, I can’t possibly know the answers to these questions.

    In certain places in this article, I would argue that you have not differentiated between fact and opinion. If you have the facts available, then you should source them. If you are stating a personal opinion, perhaps you could make this clear. [Something professional journalists are required by the NUJ code of conduct to do – see link in article.]

    A number of claims in this article are not referenced. Several of them are of a similar nature to the single claim that is sourced – that Bristol city council announced plans to introduce smaller bins and fine residents – and I fail to see why you have referenced one claim, but not the others.

    You claimed that the majority of Spiked articles are “very well referenced” – yet the very first one I looked at contains a multitude of claims, only one of which is referenced. I will be charitable and assume that this article is unrepresentative of Spiked’s content.

  5. jdc325 said,

    We do invite feedback. You will find a ‘respond to this article’ link at the top of every article. Feedback links on old, legacy articles may not work as we’ve moved servers a couple of times but the link should work on all articles from the past few years. A selection of letters is published regularly and plenty of them are critical.

    Some fair points there, and I will amend my post to reflect them. I would argue, though, that cherry-picking feedback to publish is undesirable. Can you tell me what proportion of responses are published and why Spiked’s policy is to publish only a selection?

  6. jdc325 said,

    If you are against animal testing that’s your prerogative, but you should get your facts right before accusing us of getting ours wrong or seeking to exclude debate.

    Actually, I’m not against animal testing. As I understand it, some animal testing is necessary.

    Also, I cannot see where in my post I have accused Spiked of “getting their facts wrong”. I suspect that the thalidomide articles are probably broadly accurate – my issue is that the ‘facts’ are not sourced, rather than that the ‘facts’ are wrong.

  7. Rob Lyons said,

    Wow, your school of sourcing would make for very boring articles in which every noun was underlined as a hyperlink to take you somewhere else. If you want academic writing, read academic journals. The majority of points you make about my article are either (1) in the public domain, like tax rates, so very simple to confirm or (2) implied by the argument in the article. For example, the landfill tax is there precisely to create a level playing field (more like a slope in favour of recycling actually). That point is implied by the tax’s very existence and the fact it has been deliberately hiked very rapidly to ensure that recycling is encouraged. Again, it’s in the public domain and not at all controversial.

    I agree referencing is useful, not least for those with sieve-like memories like me so I can recycle (oh the irony) sources for future articles. But a balance needs to be struck with readability. I’m sure you’ll disagree, we’ll just have to beg to differ.

  8. jdc325 said,

    Hmm. I think that it’s possible to provide sources to support most of the arguments made, and (based purely on my own experience of sourcing claims) one source would likely cover several of the claims in the article. You wouldn’t need to make every noun a hyperlink, and I disagree strongly with the notion that articles are made boring by hyperlinked text. I am, though, happy to agree to disagree.

    Thank you for engaging with my criticisms of Spiked, and thank you also for your courteous responses to the emails I have sent to Spiked.

  9. Nick Nakorn said,

    Dear Stuff&N,
    I’ve just discovered this marvelous blog and will return to it I’m sure.
    I have realised that many of the criticisms leveled at Spiked also apply to an extent to the way I present some of my material over at Nagara. Whether or not I should reference my materials more thoroughly or stick to my current style I’m not sure. The main complaint concerning my output seems to be that it is too verbose and that each piece is way too long. But I suppose I’m writing the sort of stuff I want to read and I’m hoping it will catch on.
    Best wishes
    Nick

  10. jdc325 said,

    Thanks for commenting Nick. I took a look at your blog and saw that the most recent post you’d written was on the Transition Town Network (an organisation that was new to me) and Steiner (a group I’m rather more familiar with). I’m actually writing a blogpost at the moment (it’s taking quite some time) on anti-vaccination campaigns and campaigners, in which I’ll take a brief look at the Steiner schools approach to vaccination. Steiner / Waldorf do seem to have prompted concern in several areas, of which vaccination is just one.

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